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Celebration of the Young Child, April 15, 2011, Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge

Looks like there’s fun for families with young kids Friday at the Children’s Museum. A press release came through my e-mail, and I’m posting an excerpt to help spread the word. Family entertainment and children’s activities are from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the museum, 461 W. Outer Dr., Oak Ridge.

Farmer Jason, singer-songwriter and Emmy award winner whose children’s music focuses on the animals around us, ecology and nature, is the featured performer at 10 a.m. There’s also a puppet show on safety, make-and-take crafts, kids’ movement class, health and nutrition activities, and storytelling with a surprise guest character. All the permanent exhibits at the museum will also be open during the celebration and model trains will be running. Admission is $5 per person.

Farmer Jason is Jason Ringenberg. The press release says he pioneered the fusion of punk rock and country in the mid-1980s with the band Jason and the Scorchers, created his Farmer Jason character in 2003, releasing his first CD, “A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason.” Disney magazine Family Fun called it one of the top five family CDs of 2003, and his 2006 CD, “Rockin’ in the Forest with Farmer Jason,” received a Parents Choice Gold Award. An educational video series featuring Farmer Jason produced by Nashville Public Television won the 2009 Emmy for best children’s program in the mid-south region.

For more information call Carroll Welch at the Children’s Museum, (865) 482-1074, extension 105.


Public-input session on use of traffic-camera revenue

Monday night, April 4, at 6:30 pm (corrected) the City will conduct a public meeting for input on the use of traffic camera revenue. The meeting is at the Civic Center social room. I’ll be there, and I will be interested to hear what residents have to say. I’ve already shared some of my views on this blog, but it’s time to say some more.

Council members have already heard from citizens with opinions on the use of this money. Many support the idea of traffic safety improvements, but I have also heard from people who want the City to use this money to pay down the city’s debt, as well as folks who support other specific expenditures.

Regarding the idea of paying down the debt, the idea is appealing. In effect, we’ve already done some of that. The first year’s revenues from the traffic cameras (that is, revenues for fiscal 2010) totaled about $950,000 and were applied to improving the city’s financial position by increasing cash reserves. This did not directly reduce the existing city debt, but it avoids some additional borrowing, provides a cushion against future emergencies, and helps the city maintain a good credit rating that reduces the cost of borrowing. There are good reasons not to use additional camera revenue to pay down city debt. First, I have learned that on most municipal debt obligations, it is not possible to prepay principal. (This has to do with the way the borrowing is structured.) Also, the amount of money generated by the traffic cameras (I expect that it will be about $600,000 this year) is unfortunately very small in comparison to the total city debt (at the end of fiscal 2010, this was about $107 million for schools and city government, plus about $61 million for electric/water/wastewater facilities) and even the city’s annual expenditure (over $7 million) for debt service. Finally,  interest rates on the debt are very low right now, so prepaying debt wouldn’t save us much in the way of future interest.

I think it is best to use this money to addresscity needs that might not otherwise be addressed — through projects that will have a noticeable positive impact on people’s lives and well-being. Furthermore, since Oak Ridge should not depend on the camera revenue being available forever (because it is possible that the cameras will be eliminated, and even if they are retained, it is expected that the level of violations will decrease), the money should be used for one-time purposes instead of continuing programs. And, as I discussed in my earlier blog comments, because the stated purpose of the cameras is safety, the first priority for use of this money should be safety improvements. (Some of my fellow Council members pledged to do this back when the camera contract was approved.)

Some residents have suggested building an overhead walkway to connect the high school and civic center. This would be a safety improvement that would address a long-time city need. City staff did recommend an overhead walkway due to several factors. Not only would it be extremely expensive (due in part to the requirement to provide either elevators or long wheelchair ramps on both ends), but experience elsewhere indicates that when there is a long stairway or ramp to get to a pedestrian overpass, people often decide to take their chances by jaywalking instead of using the overpass. Instead, staff has recommended installing a “pedestrian signal” (i.e., stoplight with walk light) at the crosswalk between Oak Ridge High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center. This should be an effective (and cost-effective) way of achieving the desired results from the overhead walkway  — and I have a hunch that this stoplight could eliminate the need for the speed camera and crossing guards currently deployed at this location. As stated earlier, it’s my top priority for spending traffic camera money — and I think it would have a big positive impact on both our quality of life and newcomers’ perceptions of the city.

Other safety-related proposals I’ve heard from residents include adding more  school resource officers  and funding driver’s education at the high school. Neither of these ideas fits the test of being a one-time expenditure — once started, people would expect the funding to continue in the future (even if the camera money went away).

Besides the crossing at the high school, there are other traffic/pedestrian safety-related projects on the staff’s list that I believe address important city needs — and possibly could help ameliorate some of the situations that led to installation of the cameras:

  • Pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) and Illinois Avenue (SR 62).
  • A northbound left-turn signal (traffic-activated) on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Robertsville Road
  • A walk light and pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with Tyler and Administration Roads.

These projects likely would absorb this year’s camera money, which is the focus of the resolution that is currently up for Council consideration. Other initiatives a little bit farther down the staff priority list are also worthwhile, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of their priorities. Some additional initiatives that I think are particularly worth pursuing (or at least considering) are:

  • Create a physical barrier between traffic and the bike-ped trail where the Emory Valley Greenway is on the shoulder of Emory Valley Road. It’s not clear what arrangement will work best there, but something needs to be done to protect bicyclists from traffic — and to ensure that drivers don’t have to swerve to avoid young bicyclists who veer into the traffic lane.
  • Add a walk light and pedestrian signal at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with New York Avenue and Lafayette Drive. There are plenty of good reasons for people to try to walk across the Turnpike there (walking to work or walking from a workplace to a lunch spot, for example), but there is no way for pedestrians to request that the light change to red on the Turnpike to allow crossing (not a problem when traffic is heavy, but a real issue at some hours), and it’s not clear that the red light duration is adequate for pedestrians to cross.
  • Create a protected pedestrian crossing of Melton Lake Drive near Emory Valley Road, where the Emory Valley Greenway crosses. This is a high-volume crossing point where a safer crossing would have a positive impact on residents and visitors. However, there is a vision for a roundabout there, and I would want to know that a new pedestrian crossing should be able to remain after the roundabout is installed.
  • Install “humped” crosswalks at locations on local streets, particularly in residential neighborhoods and near schools, where there is an identified need to get traffic to slow down. I can think of a few candidate spots in Woodland and and on Outer and West Outer Drives.
  • Acquire new reflective street signage that federal regulations will require cities to install over the next few years. The increased reflectivity of the new signs will enhance safety, and using traffic camera money for the signs would save money that otherwise would  come from property taxes — or additional city debt.

Those are relatively small projects. Some big-ticket items that I think we should consider in the future are:

  • Two roundabouts: One at the Melton Lake Drive and Emory Valley Road intersection and another at “Malfunction Junction” where Pennsylvania, Providence, North Tulane, and East Pasadena come together.
  • “Intelligent transportation systems” controls for stoplights on Illinois Avenue (and possibly later on Oak Ridge Turnpike) to ensure smoother traffic  flow. This would have several types of benefits. It’s easy to see how residents and visitors would appreciate improved traffic flow through town  — as would local businesses that may lose prospective customers who stay away to avoid being delayed by frequent stoplights.  I also see it as a safety measure — because a smoother passage through the stoplights would reduce the driver frustration that can tempt drivers to speed or run red lights. Finally, reducing stop-and-go driving would have environmental benefits by reducing emissions of tailpipe pollutants and greenhouse gases.

It will be helpful for staff and City Council to hear from residents and business owners (Monday night and at other times) about these and other possible priorities — plus other ideas that people might have.

If the cameras are around for more than a couple of years, and if people continue to get ticketed for speeding and  running red lights, there likely will be an opportunity to consider other uses for the revenue (and the suggestions I’ve heard range from preschool to senior center, plus all life stages in between), but for now I see opportunities for traffic-safety enhancements that I think will noticeably improve the quality of life in Oak Ridge for many years to come.


The return of ORHS Masquers

Woman and man standing behind a microphone.

Senn and Moreno telling Altrusa about ORHS Masquers

Publicity in town hasn’t exactly been overwhelming, but Thursday night the Oak Ridge High School Masquers organization takes the stage again for the first time in several years, performing “Better Football Through High School Chemistry” in the ORHS auditorium. Different sources give different schedules, but I think the show starts at 7 pm 7:30 pm Thursday (11/11) and Saturday (11/13). There’s a matinee performance on Sunday at 2 pm, preceded (according to the ORHS website) by a “tailgate party” at 1 pm (burgers, chips, and soft drinks).  Tickets are $5 for students, $7 for adults. Chemistry teacher Vidal Moreno, who is a faculty sponsor, and Samantha Senn (ORHS ’06 and a UTK grad with a theatre major), who is working to revive Masquers this year, told Oak Ridge Altrusa all about it on Wednesday.


America Recycles – Saturday, November 13, 2010

This coming Saturday, area residents can drop off fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, and cell phones for recycling at the Oak Ridge Wal-Mart store, where Keep Anderson County Beautiful and Anderson County Solid Waste will be celebrating America Recycles Day with a collection event and educational activities for kids. It’s scheduled from 10 am to 2 pm.


The League of Women Voters is busy this summer

Phew! The Oak Ridge League of Women Voters will be busy this summer, holding a bunch of candidate forums before early voting starts on July 16 — plus a public forum to meet the finalists for the position of Oak Ridge city manager. Here’s the schedule:

June 22 – Roane County Forum
Candidates for County offices
Oak Ridge area County Commission, School Board members
Rarity Ridge Wellness Center, 7:00 pm

Directions from Oak Ridge: Go west on Oak Ridge Turnpike (TN 95S) to Guard Gates (at Westover Drive). Follow TN 95 for 3.3 miles; go straight on TN 58S toward Kingston for 3.9 miles (past the Heritage Center and across Gallaher Bridge). Turn right at Rarity Ridge onto Broadberry Ave. Go 1.0 mile to Rarity Ridge Information Center sign; turn left into parking lot. The forum is in the Wellness Center building, with additional parking in the rear of the building.

June 28 – Join the Oak Ridge City Council for City Manager Candidates Forum and Reception
Pollard Auditorium, 5:30 – 7:30 pm

July 8 – Third Congressional District Forum
Candidates in Democratic and Republican Primaries
Pollard Auditorium, 7:00 pm
(Cosponsored by OR Chamber of Commerce)

July 13 – Anderson County Forum #1
County Mayor, Trustee, Juvenile Judge, Sheriff, Circuit Court Clerk, County Clerk,
Registrar of Deeds, Road Superintendent
Oak Ridge Room (A 111), Roane State Community College, 7:00 pm

July 15 – Anderson County Candidate Forum #2
All County Commission Districts in Oak Ridge (6,7,8)
Anderson County School Board (Districts 6,7)
Civic Center Rooms A & B, 7:00 pm


City budget time

It’s FY 2011 budget time for the Oak Ridge City Council. Although I’ve attended myriad meetings of the Council Budget & Finance Committee, I face a stack of budget reading: City budget and Schools budget — and audit report for FY 2009. The Council audit committee meets Monday at noon, and Council meets that same evening at 7 for a public hearing and the first vote on the budget.

This is a tough budget. No property tax increase and no layoffs, but also no money for employee pay increases or for a variety of items that department heads say their organizations need. In spite of that, total City spending will go up, mostly because of higher payments into the state retirement fund, to help make up for investment losses in the last couple of years. (This is one more opportunity for the public — especially our kids — to pay for the mistakes of investment bankers…)

Things look worse for the schools. Although the school board’s budget asks for a 3.5% increase from the City general fund (that’s more than the increase being proposed for city government), their budget cuts a bunch of positions, particularly for teacher assistants. That’s a shame, as I think that teacher assistants in the earliest grades are hugely important for kids. Like the city government, the schools face a big increase in retirement contributions. On the other hand, the schools are planning to give some raises to staff: there are step increases for teachers who are eligible (about half the teachers) and they are budgeting for a teacher bonus (if the state declares a bonus for staff positions covered by the state Basic Education Program, Oak Ridge will give the same bonus to staff whose positions aren’t in the BEP). School finances have a way of improving after the city budget is passed — if things work out like they have in recent years, the school budget picture will get slightly better in June or July. Maybe the state won’t declare that bonus, or maybe the final state education budget will be more generous than currently projected…

One feature of the budget that’s disappointing for a lot of us is the fate of that traffic camera revenue from FY 2010. People have a lot of excellent ideas for using that money for special initiatives to benefit the community, but it’s needed to plug a hole in the FY 2010 budget. The hole is largely due to two problems: (1) Property tax collections are lagging more than usual (that’s not all that surprising) and (2) a new GASB accounting standard calls for revenue to be accounted for in the year it’s collected instead of the year it was due. That’s a sensible rule, and I’m surprised and disappointed to learn that it’s not the way things have been done (apparently the City has previously claimed tax revenues when due, even if that’s years before they are collected). Unfortunately, though, the one-time accounting change has created a budget shortfall for the first year’s traffic camera money will fill.

Monday night, I expect more vigorous discussion of the budget than we’ve had in recent years. We’re likely to hear from members of the public who have been told (incorrectly) that it was City Council decided to cut those positions out of the school budget, several Council members are likely to propose cuts in specific items, and I won’t be surprised if one Council member asks for additional funding to hire several police officers.


Secret City Sounds and Safe Routes to School

Two front page stories in today’s Knoxville News Sentinel make me eager to see similar press releases from Oak Ridge:

1 – The full schedule for the “Sundown” concert series was announced. Oak Ridge will be having another “Secret City Sounds” free summer concert series on Friday evenings in Bissell Park (in the performing arts pavilion behind the Oak Ridge Civic Center), and I hope there will soon be a complete schedule for it. According to a Facebook page, the first concert will be May 7th (7:30pm – 11:30pm), by “The Breakfast Club”, an ’80s tribute band.

Last summer’s series was organized kind of at the 11th hour, so it wasn’t possible to announce the schedule in advance, but I’m hoping for a lot more advance info this year. I think attendance would have been higher with better coordinated publicity. I heard from a number of residents who said they would have liked to have had a schedule to pin onto the fridge.  More than the Secret City Festival, the Secret City Sounds series seems to induce some of my ORNL colleagues who don’t live here to come into Oak Ridge for a good time.

2 – There’s also an article about “Safe Routes to School” activities at a Knoxville elementary school.  Oak Ridge was also awarded a “Safe Routes” grant for improvements and programs at and near Robertsville Middle School, and I’m hoping that we’ll soon be seeing news about progress in implementing the program.


Chickens ‘R Us?

Chickens were the main topic in the waning minutes of Monday evening’s City Council meeting. There’s been public interest in allowing backyard poultry-keeping (mostly for eggs — and in support of sustainability, the locavore lifestyle, and connecting kids with “nature”). Oak Ridge’s zoning ordinance doesn’t allow “livestock” (including fowl) except in the RG-1 zone, so poultry-keeping is illegal unless we change the ordinance. The Planning Commission is taking up the issue — and Charlie Hensley says it’s on their policy work session agenda for this Thursday, February 11 (5:30 pm in the Municipal Building Training Room).

Urban chickens (and other fowl) are “in” these days, and many jurisdictions have been changing their zoning laws to allow them (for example, here’s a news story from last year on Durham, North Carolina, legalizing backyard chickens).

Most prospective chicken-keepers suggest that the ordinance should allow no more than 4 to 6 chickens per household — and almost everyone seems to agree on no roosters (many people enjoy hearing “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but there are many more who don’t). One poultry proponent said in an e-mail that “What matters is … that the conditions are sanitary and that it does not stink, and it is not an eyesore.” The Planning Commission will also have to think about whether an ordinance would need to include specifications on things like setbacks from property lines, and whether the city can and should enact requirements on how these birds are housed. The Planning Commission can make a recommendation to City Council, and any change in the ordinance would require City Council action.

I expect that people interested in keeping chickens (or turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, geese, pheasants, or quail) will be at Thursday’s meeting — and will be communicating their views to Community Development directory Kathryn Baldwin, Planning Commission members, and City Council. To help in reaching good decisions, we also need to hear the concerns of people who don’t like the idea — and I expect that we’ll hear from them, too.  As issues go, this one should be an amusing one to discuss — already I’m hearing good stories about people’s personal experiences with fowl.


Bicycle-Pedestrian Forum, January 5, 2010, 6 pm

The Oak Ridge city staff and and the Knoxville Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) have been working quietly to get started on a process to update the city’s pedestrian and bicycle plans. City Council found out earlier this week that an advisory committee had been formed and several meetings have been held. Currently the city has a sidewalk plan for the center city and a greenways master plan, but neither of these is recent, and some sort of comprehensive pedestrian-bike plan is needed to qualify for certain grants.

A forum for public input will be held on January 5 at the Civic Center A/B Room. Here’s a classy announcement of the forum that’s being distributed.


Bicycle Pedestrian Technical Advisory Committee Invites

You to a Public Forum

January 5th, 2010 @ 6:00 p.m.

Oak Ridge Civic Center A/B Room

The City of Oak Ridge, the Bicycle Pedestrian Technical Advisory Committee, and the Transportation Planning Organization have joined forces to prepare a Bicycle Pedestrian Master Plan for the City of Oak Ridge.  During the first public forum we will be seeking input for establishing policies, programs, and priorities for the plan.  If you have any questions you may contact the Community Development Department at (865) 425-3531 or the Parks and Recreation Department at (865) 425-3450.  We look forward to seeing you there.


Solar workshop on Saturday, November 14

“Solar 101”: Solar Basics for the Oak Ridge Homeowner will be held Saturday, November 14th, 2009, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm, in the Oak Ridge Public Library Auditorium.  Sponsored by the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board and the City of Knoxville’s Solar America Cities Program, this workshop will provide an overview of the solar technologies that are available for home installation such as solar photovoltaics, solar hot water, solar lighting, solar heating, and passive solar design. It will also provide an introduction to the step-by-step process of “going solar” in your home.

The workshop will review basic incentives and financing options, as well as best practices for hiring qualified installers. Although the workshop is not designed to offer technical or financial guidance to a specific project, it should help homeowners better understand the options and process for pursuing solar technologies.

For more information,  contact: Athanasia Senecal (865) 425- 3574 or Erin Burns at (865) 215-2065